January’s review from the Artizan Street Reading group

cassAnd now we turn our attention to the singular novella of Christa Wolf, Cassandra, celebrating the new year with her effort to undermine the masculine interpretation of ancient history by puncturing Homer’s account of the siege of Troy with a personal account by its prophetess of doom. (Cassandra is the king’s daughter and foretells the Greeks’ trick of the wooden horse, but has been cursed by the god Apollo to remain disbelieved… it’s a long story.)

The book takes the form of an urgent monologue, which put Malcolm in mind of being stuck in a lift with a woman with an axe to grind. Be kind, put in Tim. It was a stream of consciousness. Chick lit, according to Sara. Here’s the thing: Wolf is a celebrated East German communist feminist who identifies with the Cassandra character in terms of her oppression by a patriarchal society which she describes as arising in the wake of an egalitarian culture precisely at the time of the fall of Troy. And here’s another thing: Wolf explains a lot of this in an appendix to the book which is available only in the e-book version. Which only one of us had. Same publisher, same title, different content. Scandale!

Anyway, Janet had seen the book’s modern relevance straight away – the plight of the women of Troy, after the city’s fall, didn’t it just remind you of the Yazidi women in Iraq being raped and traded by religious maniacs? She’d liked the book, thought it interesting.

One problem for readers is that Wolf assumes a considerable knowledge on their part of Homer, Aeschylus and Euripides. Tim had never been able to stand all that stuff, Greek mythology, what-have-you. (So Malcolm resisted the temptation to give the brief resumé of Homer’s Iliad he’d prepared.) But, à propos of the mad woman-in-lift scenario, he disagreed. Wolf has the character state, page 115, why she is speaking out, because it all ‘needs to be set down’. It isn’t an opportunist letting-off steam. And, after all, the Iliad was really chauvinistic cobblers, if you asked him. And the great inheritance of English literature! if you asked Janet.

Well, chick lit or not, Sara, who’d found it heavy going, was glad she’d read it and, in the end, had found it compelling, well-written, intense. What’s more, she’d recently heard an account of the Stasi villains of the East German regime and thought she could identify one of the book’s characters, Eumelos, the head of the Trojan secret police, as one of those.

Rather a lot of sexual licence in the book, Malcolm thought, and it seemed to be a Wolf thing rather than something she’d found only in sources – Cassandra presents herself at a temple to be ‘deflowered’ at puberty, has regular relations with one or more priests, manages to get it on with Aeneas, (and of course is married off to a Trojan ally and raped by one of the Ajaxes). The ritual ‘deflowering’ comes from Herodotus, the Greek historian, who attributes the practice to Hittites or Babylonians. On the whole, a bit of a wilful addition. Sara agreed. Wolf wanted a bawdy element in there.

But look, isn’t the elephant-sized comparison here Wolf’s fears for her own Troy in 1980, the East German state? In the scandalously missing second half of the book, hard-copy people would have found a rather wrought account of the author’s travels and researches in Greece (during which she presents herself as a pretty irritable tourist) and her contemporary fears of nuclear attack from the USA. It is from the West that she fears the invasion of a militaristic patriarchy, however hard it is for us to get our heads around the idealistic view of Eastern Bloc communism she must have had.

One pivot of the Cassandra monologue which tips it against Homer and the Greek tradition, is its vilification of the hero Achilles, whom Wolf has as a butcher and sexual predator. And perhaps it is revealing that she has her heroine recount the ‘scandal’ of Odysseus discovering Achilles to be gay. Just to be clear, Homer’s Achilles is gay. The whole Iliad story is set around his sulks when his boyfriend, Patroclus, is killed. For the ancient Greeks, homosexuality wasn’t particularly remarkable. (Nor for penguins in London zoo, Liz added!) Maybe, for Wolf, male homosexuality is on the list of evils usurping the role of women – well, it does that, doesn’t it? Odd that Wolf in this respect highlights something which Hollywood did by omission, cutting out the entire character of Patroclus from its big-screen version.

Sara thought she’d detected a strand of feminist writers using ancient Greek and Roman themes – Margaret Atwood and Marguerite Yourcenar among them, many with the same first names. Malcolm thought he’d detected an alarming coincidence of dates, Wolf’s manuscript of 1980, lamenting the disenfranchisement of women, and Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979. You have to be careful what you wish for.

Next time, a dive to the depths of male anxiety, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. We meet 6pm Monday 16 February at Artizan Street Library.

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